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Too Soon for Rules Talk, Uneasy House Members Say

With House up for grabs, some lawmakers prefer to wait until after midterms

House Rules member Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., thinks Democrats should wait until after the midterms to discuss a rules package. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Rules member Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., thinks Democrats should wait until after the midterms to discuss a rules package. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Revisiting the House rules is a normal task lawmakers undertake every other fall, but this year, several members are uneasy about beginning that process ahead of a midterm cycle in which the chamber majority could change hands.

Some Democrats don’t want to get over their skis by preparing a rules package that their party will only have power to implement if they take control of the House in November.

Many Republicans also haven’t given a rules package much thought as they try to hold on to their majority.

Nonetheless, the Rules Committee is facilitating conversations about rules changes ahead of the new Congress. The panel’s Subcommittee on Rules and Organization of the House will hold a members day hearing Thursday to collect input. The House typically votes on a new rules package on the opening day of the session in January.

“Although this will not be the only chance for Members to propose changes to the House Rules package for the 116th Congress, the hearing will provide a significant opportunity for Members to have their ideas heard,” subcommittee Chairman Doug Collins wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter Aug. 16. 

Several members interviewed for this story said they weren’t ready to talk about rules changes, although various caucuses were beginning to discuss ideas.

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Democratic discussions

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi wrote her own “Dear Colleague” letter at the start of the August recess that mentioned the need to prepare a rules package.

“As we move toward a more Democratic Congress, we promise a more democratic Congress,” the California Democrat said. “To that end, we must be ready with a rules package on the first day of the 116th Congress — a Congress of civility, fairness and transparency.”

The July 30 letter followed a slate of proposed rules changes the bipartisan Problems Solvers Caucus released July 25. Some caucus members said they wouldn’t support a candidate for speaker who didn’t back the changes.

The Problems Solvers Caucus’ package includes a fast-track process for legislation co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the House; a guarantee that each member gets at least one markup of a bipartisan bill in a committee they serve on; a three-fifths threshold to pass bills under a closed rule; and at least one germane amendment from each party for bills considered under structured rules.

At her weekly press conference last week, Pelosi said a Democratic majority would allow for a more open legislative process, bringing broadly supported bipartisan bills to the floor and allowing both parties to offer amendments to legislation.  

“We’re very excited about it, because this has been a miserably dark Congress, in terms of being closed,” she said, referring to the practice of so-called closed rules that, for the most part, prohibits making changes on the floor.

House Republicans broke the record earlier this year for the most number of closed rules adopted in a single Congress. The current tally stands at 96. 

Rules Committee ranking member Jim McGovern, who is leading the Democrats’ effort to craft a rules package, had asked his colleagues to submit recommended changes by Sept. 7 — a deadline that several members panned.

Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the deadline “ridiculous,” noting that members just returned to Washington after a month-long recess.

The Wisconsin Democrat said the Progressive Caucus, which met with McGovern on Thursday, was forming a subcommittee to examine rules changes but would need more time to produce ideas.

McGovern suggested the deadline was flexible, saying, “I put that in there knowing that nobody respects deadlines.”

The Massachusetts Democrat said his goal is to have a draft rules package ready to present to the Democratic Caucus the week after the general election in November.

“We’re in the process of getting ideas with a focus on making sure that if we win control of the House that we’re going to run this place like professionals,” McGovern said. “It’s going to be a more respectful, more accommodating place.”

The Congressional Black Caucus has also formed a task force to brainstorm rules changes despite feelings that the conversation is premature.

“It doesn’t make sense to look at any rules package until you know you’re going to win,” CBC Chairman Cedric L. Richmond said.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Rules Committee member who is heading the CBC task force with California Rep. Karen Bass, said he understands the need to have a rules package in the event Democrats win, but he would prefer to wait until after the midterms to prepare one.

“I don’t like all of this back and forth about stuff that may wind up being idle,” the Florida Democrat said. “We haven’t won the House of Representatives.”

Republican ideas

While several Republicans weren’t ready to discuss rules changes either, a few have begun floating ideas.

“I’m interested in committee members selecting the chairmen,” said Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, who is running for speaker if Republicans hold onto their majority.

With at least nine Republican chairmen retiring or term-limited, it’s important that the panel members get to pick their replacements, the Ohio Republican said.

Jordan’s proposal would not abolish the Republican Steering Committee, which currently doles out committee assignments, however. That panel would still get to assign members to committees, although Jordan wants Steering members to have an equal number of votes. (Currently, the speaker gets four and the majority leader gets two, while everyone else gets one.)

Although Jordan’s proposal would appear to only change Republican Conference rules, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said they’ve discussed presenting it as a change to House rules so that both parties would have to allow committee members to pick chairs and ranking members. Democrats also have a Steering Committee that selects their committee leaders.

Jordan is also interested in changes to the legislative process and said he’s eager to look at the Problem Solvers Caucus package. He said New York Rep. Tom Reed, the group’s Republican co-chairman, has talked to him about it. 

“I have not seen the document, but it sounds like there are some good things in there,” he said.

Separately from the Problem Solvers Caucus, Reed has proposed an addition to House rules that would prohibit members from serving on corporate boards, an idea that followed the indictment of New York Rep. Chris Collins on insider trading charges. Collins served on the board of Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian biotechnology company, and allegedly shared inside knowledge about Innate’s drug trial results with his son, who then made timely stock trades. 

Another rule members are likely to want to revisit is the earmark ban the House Republicans added to their conference rules after winning the majority in 2010. Republicans discussed reinstating limited earmarks in organizing sessions for the 115th Congress, but Speaker Paul D. Ryan convinced the conference to punt the decision.

“We haven’t finished settling that debate,” Ryan said when asked about the earmarks issue during his weekly press conference last week. “And I think the next organizing conference will probably have to wrestle with this.”

While there is no earmark ban in House rules, members of both parties who want to bring them back might want to include clarifying language in that package to override what is now simply a GOP conference rule.

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